August 14, 2008
SHEILA STATHUM, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
JOHN GARVEY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. SC-1806-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued August 5, 2008
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Baxter.
Defendant John Garvey appeals from a June 7, 2007 order denying his motion to vacate a May 17, 2007 judgment in plaintiff's favor in the amount of $1,194. We affirm.
On March 9, 2007, the vehicle operated by defendant rear-ended the 1995 Ford Thunderbird being operated by plaintiff Sheila Stathum. Shortly after the accident, defendant's insurance carrier, Liberty Mutual, obtained a written estimate of $2,991 from Epic Collision for the cost of repairs to plaintiff's vehicle. Liberty Mutual then determined that the cost of the repairs exceeded the book value of plaintiff's vehicle, which was $1,797. Consequently, Liberty Mutual declared the car a total loss and forwarded a check to plaintiff in the amount of the $1,797. Plaintiff cashed the check and applied the proceeds to the purchase of a 2003 Malibu.*fn1
Plaintiff's purchase of the Malibu resulted in a $300 per month car payment.
Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Smalls Claims Division of the Special Civil Part in which she sought compensation for her increased car insurance premiums, car payment and emotional distress. During the May 17, 2007 non-jury Small Claims trial, the parties stipulated that liability was not in dispute and the sole issue was damages. During the trial, plaintiff produced a repair estimate from Ken's Auto Body in the amount of $5,000. The $2,991 repair estimate obtained by defendant's insurance carrier from Epic Collision was also introduced in evidence. Plaintiff testified that before the accident, she had no car payment and was unable to afford the $300 monthly obligation she was forced to incur when she purchased the Malibu.
Judge Sullivan rejected defendant's argument that his liability was limited to the value of plaintiff's vehicle prior to the accident. The judge reasoned that defendant's proposed method of calculating damages was not applicable in a two-party action such as this and would only have been applicable in a first-party action against plaintiff's own insurance carrier. In a written opinion, the judge concluded that defendant was not entitled to limit plaintiff's damages to the fair market value of the vehicle. The judge reasoned:
The market value approach clearly would not have compensated plaintiff for her loss. At the same time, giving her the full cost of the new vehicle may have put her in a better position than she was in before the accident. . . . The repair costs may not have been a perfect figure but it was better than either market value, which would have left plaintiff in a far worse position than she was in before the accident, and replacement costs which would have left her in a better position.
The judge rejected plaintiff's claims for emotional distress and the increase in her insurance premiums. Because plaintiff has not cross-appealed, we do not address those issues.
The judge determined that plaintiff's damages consisted of the $2,991 that it would have cost to repair her vehicle, minus the $1,797 defendant had already paid. Accordingly, the judge entered judgment in plaintiff's favor in the amount of $1,194.
On appeal, a trial judge's findings of fact are binding upon us so long as those findings are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). In contrast, a judge's legal conclusion is not entitled to any particular deference and we review such determinations de novo. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Manalapan Twp. Comm., 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). Here, defendant does not challenge the judge's findings of fact, but instead confines his arguments on appeal to the judge's conclusions of law.
"The general primary rule is that, in the absence of the total destruction of an automobil[e], the measure of damages is the difference in its value immediately before and after the injury." Premier XXI Claims Mgmt. v. Rigstad, 381 N.J. Super. 281, 283 (App. Div. 2005)(quoting Jones v. Lahn, 1 N.J. 358, 362 (1949)). As we observed in Premier XXI, a plaintiff is entitled to establish that difference in value by providing evidence of the reasonable costs of repairing the damaged automobile. Such evidence is "competent as tending to show the difference in value immediately before and immediately after the injury." Ibid. (quoting Hintz v. Roberts, 98 N.J.L. 768, 770 (E. & A. 1923)). The Court of Errors and Appeals reaffirmed the Hintz method of calculating damages in its 1946 decision in Parisi v. Friedman, 134 N.J.L. 273, 274 (E. & A. 1946). Ultimately, the Court held that "the sundry rules for measuring damages are subordinate to the ultimate aim of making good the injury done or loss suffered and hence 'The answer rests in good sense rather than in a mechanical application of a single formula.'" N.J. Power & Light Co. v. Mabee, 41 N.J. 439, 441 (1964)(citation omitted). We reiterated and adopted that very approach in Premier XXI. Premier XXI, supra, 381 N.J. Super. at 284.
In light of the Court's and our own rejection in Mabee of a mechanical and inflexible approach to the measurement of damages, we cannot find fault with Judge Sullivan's conclusion that the $2,991 repair estimate from Epic Collision represented a fair measure of plaintiff's damages. Indeed, the judge's reasoning is consistent with the approach that was approved in the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 928 (1979), which provides:
When one is entitled to a judgment for harm to chattels not amounting to a total destruction in value, the damages include compensation for (a) the difference between the value of the chattel before the harm and the value after the harm or, at his election in an appropriate case, the reasonable cost of repair or restoration, with due allowance for any difference between the original value and the value after repairs, and
(b) the loss of use.
Defendant argues that the trial court erred when it used the projected repair cost as a method of calculating plaintiff's damages. In particular, defendant points to the language in the Restatement, supra, and encompassed in the Model Civil Jury Charge,*fn2 which provides that the reasonable cost of repair is not a proper measurement of damages in instances where the "harm to chattels . . . amount[s] to a total destruction in value." Ibid. Defendant argues that the "total destruction of value" applies to circumstances such as this where the repair cost exceeds the book value of the damaged property. In support of that argument, defendant relies upon a portion of the Court of Errors and Appeals's decision in Parisi in which the Court observed that a plaintiff is not entitled to an award of damages for the cost of repairs if the cost of repairs would exceed the market value of the automobile immediately before the accident. Parisi, supra, 134 N.J.L. at 275.
We conclude that the trial judge's opinion is based upon "good sense rather than . . . a mechanical application of a single formula." Mabee, supra, 41 N.J. at 441. The judge correctly determined that the proper measurement of plaintiff's damages was the cost of the repairs, which is the measurement of damages that we approved in Premier XXI, supra, 381 N.J. Super. at 285, and that is established in the Restatement (Second), supra. We do not view the dicta in Parisi upon which defendant relies as compelling a contrary result.